When a film has remained out of circulation almost since the day it was made, it can, with the proper combination of controversy and critical acclaim, attain a mythical status. When the movie also happens to be the last American film by Samuel Fuller, a director and auteur who was a living breathing myth in his own right, expectations are understandably ratcheted into the stratosphere. And these expectations inevitably lead to disappointment.
"White Dog" (1982) was marked (can you think of a better pun-avoiding term than "dogged" or "hounded"?) by controversy before it was even released. In the film, an adaptation of a Romain Gary story, Julie (Kristy McNichol) finds an injured white-furred German shepherd abandoned on the highway. She adopts him, and falls in love with the sweet-natured little guy who also saves her from a conveniently-timed (for the sake of the plot) attempted rape.
Soon she discovers there's more to this heroic dog than meets the eye. It turns out that he is a "white dog," a term that doesn't refer to the color of his fur but rather to the fact that he was trained to attack and kill black people. As you can imagine, her discovery does occur under pleasant circumstances but she is determined to save the dog who saved her. She brings him to Mr. Keys (Paul Winfield), a dog trainer who just happens to be black. Keys has tried to break "white dogs" before and failed, but he is bound and determined to keep trying until the re-training works.
As a metaphor, "White Dog" is both blunt and powerful. Race is a social category, not a biological one, and the ability to discriminate among races is a socially learned skill. If dogs, like people, can be trained to be "racists" then if their training can be undone, perhaps the same is true of their human keepers.
As such a simple and open symbol of racism, the white dog (who never receives a name in the film) is infinitely pliable. He stands in as a symbol of generations of children conditioned by their parents' rhetoric. In a late scene, a sweet, smiling old-man with his two cute-as-a-button granddaughters in tow shows up at Julie's house. As they stare glassy-eyed while Julie rips into grandpa, it's clear that they're at risk for being his next "white dogs."
Fuller, not exactly noted for subtle rhetoric, labors the metaphor even further, turning the white dog into a representation of the authority of Church and state. The white dog chases a black man into a church and kills him right under a stained-glass window of Francis of Assisi surrounded by all of his gentle and devoted animals.
It is one of many over-the-top scenes in the film that come unexpected in a film so heavily praised. Fuller's direction in "White Dog" is generously described as "eclectic" but sometimes it just feels plain awkward. The cast of McNichol, Winfield and Burl Ives (as Keys' boss) already gives "White Dog" the feel of a made-for-TV movie. By the time we're treated to the third or fourth slow-motion shot of the snarling dog jumping through the air, it's hard not to think of Max the bionic dog. Only the "Bionic" slow-motion soundtrack cue is missing. Some undeniably ham-fisted dialogue by Fuller and co-writer Curtis Hanson doesn't help matters.
Critics haven't turned "White Dog" into a cause célèbre for its spit and polish, but rather for its stick-upside-the-head attack on American complacency and denial about racism. The message was so loud and so strong that the film was actually tagged with the label "racist" during production, and generated protests from people who had never even seen the film. Some of the controversy probably stemmed from the source story in which the dog trainer, a Black Muslim, re-trains the dog to attack white people. Fuller scrapped this idea entirely, and turned Keys into an unambiguously heroic figure. Nonetheless, the studio panicked over the bad publicity and sent the film almost directly to cable in America, though it did play to great critical fanfare in France where Fuller would soon move for the last few years of his career.
Even with some clunky dialogue, mediocre performances (except for Winfield) and occasionally heavy-handed direction, "White Dog" still has the power to provoke. As simple as the central metaphor is, the film offers no false redemption narrative, and no easy answers. As long as there are "white dogs" of all species among us, the movie will remain as relevant and potent as ever.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The transfer is as polished as we have come to expect from Criterion. It's sharp with a few signs of wear from the source print, but nothing worth complaining about.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
For such a ballyhooed film, the relative lack of extras is somewhat disappointing.
"Four-legged Time Bomb" (44 min.) is a collection of interviews with co-writer Curtis Hanson, Fuller's widow Christa, and producer Jon Davidson. The interviews are unusually in-depth in detailing the genesis of the project (Roman Polanski was attached at one point) and its troubled reception and suppression.
The only other feature offers text excerpts from an interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller, who worked on the film.
The insert booklet features essays by J. Hoberman and Armond White, along with a piece in which Fuller "interviews" the dog.
"White Dog" has been a "white whale" for devoted cinephiles for years. The only time I ever found a bootleg copy in a video store it was listed as being in "Portuguese with English subtitles." I decided to wait. Criterion has made Fuller's legendary film available on DVD for the first time ever, and even if it didn't turn out to be the unblemished masterpiece I had anticipated, it was still worth the wait.